A senior executive at Irish broadcaster RTE has blamed Ireland’s defamation laws over the decision to pay a €85,000 libel settlement to journalists and a right-wing Catholic think-tank, following the comments of a drag artist on one of its shows.

Drag artist Panti Bliss made critical comments about the Iona Institute, who “promote the place of marriage and religion in society”, on RTE’s Saturday Night Show last month.

O’Neill named individuals in the broadcast, resulting in the payout.

It was revealed earlier this week that RTE had awarded a cash settlement understood to be around €85,000 (£70,000) to six people associated with the charity.

In an email to staff leaked by the Irish Herald, Glenn Killane, managing director of television at RTE, said: “Over the last week a number of people have approached me questioning RTE’s apology to John Waters and members of the Iona Institute following the receipt of six legal complaints and you will, no doubt, have seen the ongoing debate on this subject” he said.

“I want to reassure you that RTE explored every option available to it, including right of reply. Legal advice was sought and all avenues were explored, including an offer to make a donation to a neutral charity.”

Mr Killane said it would have been “absolutely reckless” of RTE not to settle the case.

He told RTe Radio’s News at One programme the broadcaster was faced with six different defamation actions and was told by “very senior counsel” that it was unlikely it would be able to defend any defamation action in court.

“The amount of money you could be faced into shelling out potentially from six separate cases would have been a multiple for what we settled,” he said.

Mr Killane said he spoke with senior management in RTE including the Director General Noel Curran before making the decision to pay out.

“The decision was taken by me based on advice,” Mr Killane said. “The view was very clear. It was in the public interest, in terms of spending public money responsibly.”

Irish born London based TV presenter Graham Norton called the decision to pay damages “unbelievable”.

Ireland’s Communications Minister Pat Rabbite had warned against using the term “homophobe” to describe opponents of equal marriage.

He said: “It is too loaded a term to be used to categorise those who hold contrary views on what is a matter for legitimate public debate”.

In the Seanad, the upper house of the Irish Parliament, Senator David Norris attacked RTE over the speed of its settlement.

He also said homophobia remained “rampant” in Irish society and called into question the conduct of the Iona Institute.